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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Teacher: Rumi

Without Love, how could there be existence?
By what power could bread have entered you and become you?
Without your love and appetite, how could the bread
have encountered the spirit of life?
Love transforms dead bread into spirit:
it makes mortal spirit everlasting.

Mevlâna Jelaleddin Rumî (1207 - 1273)

The Mevlana reposedBorn in 1207 in Balkh, in present-day Afghanistan, then part of Persia, his parents named him Jelale-ddin (the Keeper of the Faith). Jelaleddin's family fled west before the Mongol invasions and eventually settled in Konya in 1226 - then in its heyday as the capital of the Turkish Seljuk Empire - where first his father, a great scholar, and then he retreated more and more into meditation and study of the divine.

The Seljuks ruled their Empire of Rum with a tolerant hand and Konya, in the 12th and 13th centuries, became a refuge for artists and men of learning, fleeing the depredations of the Mongols and the Crusaders from all over the Middle East and Muslim Asia. Konya was a showplace of Turkish architecture, with a collection of mosques and schools that made the city a rival of Istanbul and Bursa.

It was in this atmosphere that Jelaleddin studied under his father Bahaeddin Veled and, on his death, also started teaching. He taught complete tolerance, positive thinking and awareness of God through love and wanted his work to appeal to everyone. He became known as Mevlâna Jelaleddin Rumî (Our Master Jelaleddin of Rum).

His poetry has been described as an ocean, vast and boudless encompassing all the systems and creeds within it. His first great work, the Mesnevi, contains 25,000 couplets (longer than the longest poem in English) while Diwan e-Shams is even longer still. It is his treatment of divine love that really sets his poetry apart, writing of the "lover" and the "beloved", the soul and its dissolution in the Divine.

When he died, mourners from five religious denominations are said to have attended the Mevlana's funeral, including members of what were then large Christian and Jewish communities.

Today Mevlana's tomb, housed in the Mevlana Museum in Konya, Turkey, is a pilgrimage site for people from all over the world and every December a festival commemmorates the mystical poet and teacher. On the last night of the festival Rumi's whirling dervishes dance in celebration of the anniversary of his death, an event he saw as a marriage with God.

During the week of the festival, entrance to the Mevlana Museum is free and crowds of people throng to empty their hearts in front of Mevlana's tomb, contemplate and pray. Though most of the Muslims in Konya are not Sufis, they nevertheless regard Rumi as something of a saint and the wide-reaching appeal of his teaching is reflected in the number of Westerners also lost in silent contemplation before his beautifully ornate tomb.

To his Western followers he is known simply as Mevlana or Rumi.

Rumi Bridges East and West

Rumi's ideas have enjoyed unprecedented interest in the West. Universally acknowledged as the greatest Sufi poet with his prolific treatment of God as a lover, his mystical poetry, particularly in the translations by American writer Coleman Barks, has sold in escalating amounts, prompting US Publisher's Weekly to declare Rumi the best-selling poet in America in the late 1990s. Many artists have interpreted his texts, including composer Philip Glass and video artist Bill Viola. By the time Madonna did a version of one of his songs on an album called A Gift of Love in 1998, the Rumi bandwagon was well and truly rolling.

It's not difficult to see the appeal of the whirling dance of the dervishes - apart from the aesthetic beauty, there is a strong sense of spiritual intoxication to connect with a Maker, and of humanhood, living the concept that everyone in the world is either a partner, a sister or brother - irrelevant of creed or colour. But why, with their roots in Islam, should Rumi and the dervishes have such strong appeal to Westerners?

Barks offers as a reason that, "There is a great thirst for the ecstatic and the gnostic in the West. Robert Bly (a fellow poet and Rumi translator) says that in our sacred texts, such as the Bible, those elements were cut out as heretical, and we've been lonesome for this ecstatic material ever since."

The second reason, Barks claims, is that Rumi was unorthodox: an ecumenical free-thinker who "had followers of different faiths in his lifetime. I see him as someone who kicked free of doctrinal confinement and got to the core from which we all worship."

Interest in Rumi and the dervishes in the West isn't entirely new. Sufi ideas were particularly strong among the more mystically inclined poets such as Robert Graves, who wrote the introduction to The Sufis, a book by Idries Shah which popularised the practice in the 1960s. Richard Francis Burton, the Victorian explorer and translator of the Kama Sutra, was initiated as a dervish.

Finding Rumi

The Mevlana reposedThere is, with 30,000 verses of lyric poetry, a lot of Rumi to interpret, which may help to explain why everyone from strict Islamicists to New Age hippies seem to find something different in him. As Anne-Marie Schimmel, a leading scholar of Muslim mysticism, puts it: "Every interpreter has found whatever he sought, from pantheism to personal mysticism, from enraptured love to law-bound orthodoxy".

Metin Babaroğlu, an Istanbul pharmacist who spent years as a dervish described Rumi as someone who tapped into "the river from which all the streams flow" and the West's interest in the dervishes and mystical Islam "could be a source for a new understanding between East and West".

If discovering Rumi is a platform for tolerance and peace, then how does one find him?

In finding the essential Rumi, Barks has said that, "The real Rumi is the dervish ceremony of the sema." According to Barks, Rumi is to be found in the rows of dervishes that fall into their own rhythm as they whirl, their skirts undulating around them, their eyes closed and their faces transported; as though they are a study of stillness in motion, peacefulness personified.

And so searchers come to find him in elegant ceremonies, with accompanying music derived from the Ottoman courts of centuries ago. Led by the soulful instrument the ney, they come to the whisper of whirling at a small lodge where heavenly bodies turn in Istanbul, a city which is a bridge between East and West - just like Rumi.

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Main Index | The Sema | The Mevlevi | The Teacher | The Followers

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